Where the Real Chinese Food Is Hidden

Jason Kuznicki at Positive Liberty offers some hypotheses as to why Chinese restaurants have “secret menus” that only Chinese people seem to know about. His top theory: American are used to Americanized Chinese food and wouldn’t like the real stuff, so Chinese restaurants continue serving the authentic food only to their Chinese customers. Tyler Cowen adds that, by hiding their authentic menus, Chinese restaurants may be trying to keep from attracting too many non-Chinese customers. [%comments]

Richard B.

There is a similar issue here in Chicago with Thai restaurants. A foodie Thai-speaking friend described their reasons as:
(1) They don't think Americans will like the food on the secret menu. This is not a value judgment against Americans; just business sense in wanting to sell their menu items. Of course they will prepare any dish that is familiar to them upon request, but most people do not know what to ask for, or even if they would like it. So there is a chicken and egg problem. Or a Kanom Buang Yuan problem. (Order it!)
(2) They do not have adequate menu translations. Most Thai menu listings (and I understand Chinese) do not adequately describe the dish to those who are not already familiar with it. So outside translation help is required to find an effective description of the dish for English speakers. This can be a costly and speculative undertaking for a business that really does not make a lot of money.
Of course they would be thrilled if they can make a business of selling more authentic dishes, but there just doesn't seem to be money in a marketing campaign selling these strange dishes with unfamiliar names.



When I worked in a restaurant, there was the food out front, and the food we ate. Seeing the same thing everyday gets old and most of the time, the people who work there invent a floating menu that they eat from.

While the regulars enjoyed typical mall fair we would invent new dishes from what we had. Often we would share with others in the mall.

I am willing to be most of the people who order from the secret menu either worked in the industry or know that the staff gets tired of the same over seasoned American food.


More likely they want to avoid giving something *too* exotic to a white customer, freaking him out and generating bad press.


There's a crappy Thai restaurant near MIT. Someone noticed they have a Sichuan menu. Great. But then someone realized the awning has always said, in Chinese, authentic Sichuan food. One of my friends has a Cantonese restaurant and the name in Chinese is 100% different than the English name. The cultural differences can run that deep.

I was in FL, walked into a Chinese place, asked where they were from - Fuzhou, where a lot of immigrants come from - and then if they make any food from home. They said, "They don't like that here." I asked if they had any real food and we all pondered for a while. The only choice was dumplings.

There's a huge unwillingness to believe Americans will or even can eat real Chinese food.


Maybe there are also two sets of prices, possibly lower ones for customers who are Chinese, and who get the 'secret' menu written in Chinese.

I remember years ago, a Chinese restaurant in Canada (in the province of Quebec I think) was brought to court for having two different menus. The main difference was in the prices. It was judged discriminatory.

I've seen it in China too. In large cities with a strong tourism industry, there are some restaurants offering one of two different menus to their customers (in English or in Mandarin) based on their origins. Dishes in the English menu, yes, can be different, possibly catered to the taste of Westerners (usually less spicy), but prices are often much, much higher...


1. Ask the restaurant manager his reasons.

Presuming that the reason is the top one above:

2. Suggest that he translate the chinese menu into english and make it available for anyone asking for the "authentic menu" or "second menu". This way he can serve the non-authentic eaters the food they want without offending them, and acquire a new customer base of authentic food enthusiasts who know what they are getting into.

Brent Edwards

*looks confused*

In the Bay Area, California the "secret menu"s are not at all hidden. They're written on paper, on the walls - in Chinese.

If you can read them, you can order them.

Eric Y

I don't know about the latter comment Cowen made. To me, the two comments seem contradictory. For Chinese restaurant owners, like most other restaurant owners, the more money the better. It's practicality that rules the day. So much so that they are willing to compromise what they would cook, and cook what they believe mainstream America would like.


"by hiding their authentic menus, Chinese restaurants may be trying to keep from attracting too many non-Chinese customers."

This must pertain to ultra-small Chinese restaurants in (presumed-by-its-residents-to-be-the-center-of-the-world) New York City versus all-you-can-eat Chinese buffetts in the Southeastern USA. I cannot see how any of the buffett operators would want to discourage non-Chinese from attending their restaurant.

Doug Nelson

1) In many Chinese restaurants, the menus are written so you can order from someone who doesn't speak English (numbers, big pictures, rigid choices, etc.).
2) Ordering offmenu is less profitable, so they might only allow it from preferred customers (not necessarily just from Chinese customers, I have a non-Chinese friend who orders offmenu in virtually every restaurant, and gets it because he is very charming)


the local Chinese restaurant here does the same thing, but i have a friend who works there (and isclose with the owner) so i've had a chance to try many of the authentic dishes. i'm a very adventurous eater, but never found anything i would order over the americanized dishes.

i agree with the idea that the proprietors are simply trying to sell people what they like (i've seen the same thing at mexican and thai restaurants as well).

Justin James

@8 (econobiker) -

Having moved from NJ (where I only encountered 1 "all you can eat" place that I can recall) to SC (where "all you can eat" rules the roost), I can say a few things:

1. The food quality at "all you can eat" is often wretched compared to individual dishes. *Even at the same restaurant.*

2. Given the "buffet busters" I have met around here, I have a hard time beleiving that many restaurants can make more than a marginal living on the buffet. When someone is eating 4, 5, 6 plates of food, how much money can they make unless they serve absolute garbage food with minimal preparation? Indeed, I am fairly certain that most buffets are really pre-frozen food heated at the store. There is simply too much uniformity in taste and offerings across different places to think otherwise.

3. Buffet food, as a rule, is absolutely disgusting. The only way to cook food in those quantities at those prices is to use the lowest grade meats and vegatables, and to just cover it in grease and salt and get it cooked quickly.

In other words, I wouldn't exactly call buffets a "good thing"...

From what I can tell, buffets exist being the clientele demands them; people prefer "all you can eat" to "the best you can eat" to the point where restaurants struggle to survive without them, even though the profit margin has got to be low.



Hunter Cruz

hiding menu items can also be good for the customers who do not know about the hidden menu.

for example, take a *certain* korean restaurant serving dog meat. it is best those who do not understand these kinds of delicacy are kept in the dark. the dog eaters get to have their dog meal while the generic white restaurant-goer is kept in his blissful ignorance.

less controversially, there are simply ethnic dishes that can safely be considered as non-attractive to the general population. rotten fish meat anyone?


One of the reasons I've commonly seen cited is that it reduces problems with people who order things off the Chinese/secret/authentic/good menu, and then send them back because they don't like them. Every ethnic restaurant owner has a few stories of people who insisted they absolutely wanted the spicy/offal/weird/authentic dish and then sent it back and insisted on not paying for it after they found out what it was. If you just give them the gwailo menu in the first place, you don't have that problem.


I lived in America for 10 years. Typical American food has too much sugar. Authentic Chinese dishes have very subtle tastes or flavors because they do not have as much sugar. What restaurants do is adjust their recipes to please American customers.

Kevin Jones

Does anybody know if this is true in the UK (different menus)?

It's certainly true that the dishes I can get in the UK are different to the US even if I order dishes with the same name.

Thinking about it I also find that generally I'm nearly always disappointed whenever I've had Chinese food in the US. However the one place I did go when the food was outstanding was in Dana Point CA. Can't remember the name of the place but there can't be many Chinese restaurants there


Authentic ingredients for Asian dishes tend to be much more expensive in the U.S. than in Asia.

Also, in my experience, many Chinese restaurants are not run by actual Chinese people, but by Vietnamese, Cambodians or Mongolians. But that's just my experience.


I mentioned it on the Cowen blog...hasn't anyone seen the episode of No Reservations where the Chinese restauranteur explains this to Tony Bourdain? Its on the hidden spots of old New York City episode.


As has been noted, the so-called "secret menu" has always been posted on the wall and inserted into the regular English menu. Anyone who can read Chinese would have been free to order from it. Yes, I know that this is hardly helpful to most American customers.

As a Chinese, I understand the frustration of those who are open-minded and/or adventurous and want "the real thing." (Noted eater and writer Calvin Trillin has long expressed his frustration regarding the secret menu, albeit in a humorous way). The "secret" stuff is the really good stuff, in my opinion.

But until the advent of such celebrity eaters and gourmands such as Anthony Bourdain, which is to say as recently as 10 years ago, most Caucasians I know, including those who would normally be considered cosmopolitan, open minded, and enthusiastic eaters, would be leery of what's on the "secret" menu unless I (of Chinese descent)was there to provide assurance.

My impression is that there are three reasons the "secret menu" exists;

1) To avoid scaring off unadventurous customers. A restauranteur wants his/her customers to feel relaxed, to have fun, because these are the type of customers who spend money. Put too many "what the heck???" dishes on the menu, and suddenly these customers might tense up and decide to order fewer dishes because they wonder what they might be getting into.

2) Language issues. Not only is finding a good translator difficult and expensive, some of the dishes are difficult to describe in English. They incorporate ingredients (vegetables, species of fish, etc., for instance) that not have English names that are commonly known.

3) Protecting the ego. Believe it or not, it's hurtful and/or offensive to most people of Chinese descent when a much loved dish is disparaged with comments like "Good lord!" or "I can't believe you people eat that stuff" or "You people really will eat anything, won't you?" or "Ewwww!" I can easily see how a restaurant owner or manager would quickly decide, "You know what? Forget it. Selling this dish to the two adventurous non-Chinese customers a year isn't worth the grief of hearing the sounds of disgust from everyone else."

There will probably be a response to the tune of "but things are different today, and there are a lot of adventurous eaters out there."

Well, the Zimmern and Chowhound crowd might be vocal, but I'd say they're still in the minority. Every time I eat in a Chinese restaurant, I still hear that reaction from other customers, and they're usually just talking about a dish on the regular, English menu.

My Caucasian friend, an obsessed fan of Chinese food, does report that if you are willing to take the time to ask for a "secret" dish by name, and convince your waiter/waitress that you love it, they will often agree to serve it to you, and make suggestions for new dishes to try that aren't listed in English. It helps if you can actually name the dish in Chinese (bad accents are fine, so no worries) instead of describing it as "that fish dish with the black spices" (or whatever.)



Next time, look around and see what the Chinese/Thai/etc are eating and ask the waiter for the same thing. So long as you are courteous and nice about it, the restaurant isn't going to refuse to serve from the other menu.